Manoj Simha (W ‘22) is not your typical finance bro.
He has a thing for really obscure sports, like Norwegian curling, and has played scrabble with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. What he’s most set on me including, though, is that he and his roommates have won a collective $750 from pub trivia at New Deck Tavern, “because we are trivia gods."
But his favorite pub isn’t New Deck Tavern; it’s actually The Victoria Freehouse at Penn’s Landing, which also happens to be his favorite place in Philly. It’s one of the only British pubs in the city, and the primary Premier League (that’s soccer for us Americans) pub here as well. One of his anecdotes sums up The Victoria Freehouse pub perfectly: “I’ve seen bar fights, but I’ve also seen an 80–year–old British man meet a 13–year–old Liverpool fan from South Philly and become best friends that hang out every week. It’s the craziest thing.” At the end of the night, “you can be a little tipsy, stand by the water, and just take it all in.”
It all seems really niche, but these kinds of experiences are right up his alley, even translating into his Wharton education—Manoj wants to learn about as many people and places as he can. Through his WH 101 and MGMT 389 courses, he’s gotten to work with educational nonprofits here in Philly. But he’s also done work farther afield, building a financial model for a goat farm in The Gambia in west Africa. “Those kinds of things where you get your hands dirty in the real world are fascinating,” he says.
To Manoj, business school was never about banking or consulting. “I don’t come from a family that’s well versed in those things,” he says. He came to Wharton with the intention of “building something, starting something fresh.”
In his academics, he’s taken advantage of every learning opportunity: He’s graduating with a bachelor's in economics, concentrating in finance and legal studies. “I was originally going to concentrate in public policy [as well], but they wouldn’t let me triple concentrate,” he says with a humble laugh. Oh, and he’s also minoring in history, which he cites as his favorite part of his academic experience. “It’s been my thing since I was a little kid, realizing that we’re just a small part of this grand scheme,” he says.
His education has proven handy in achieving exactly what he set out to do here at Penn—building something from the ground up. His biggest commitment on campus is with Cosmic Writers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit he founded alongside Rowana Miller (C ‘22) that strives to provide free, accessible, high–quality creative writing education to every child that wants it. Manoj serves as its director of finance and will continue to do so after graduation.
Manoj is particularly passionate about creative writing education because of how it helped him during his move from southern India to Seattle when he was 8 years old. He felt left out because he didn’t speak much English, but a patient librarian would sit with him after school, reading him books and helping him write them down, eventually teaching him to write his own little stories.
She encouraged him to submit one of the stories to the writing competition through the PBS show Reading Rainbow, and he won. “I got to meet LeVar Burton, it was the best day of my life,” he says, smiling from ear to ear. “It’s when I felt like I truly belonged in this community, I belonged in this country. I found my voice.”
Since then, creative writing has been one of Manoj’s favorite hobbies. He and Cosmic Writers Executive Director Rowana both lived in Kings Court English College House their first year at Penn and became fast friends. “All roads lead back to KCECH,” he jokes. In 2020, Rowana started some summer creative writing camps with a grant from the Kelly Writers House, and in May 2021, she was ready to make it a more cohesive nonprofit. “We were sort of a perfect match,” he says, explaining how he got involved with the project. “Because we understood each other really well. We both understood why writing was important to us, and [we] had really complementary skills. She knew the programming side and the instructional side inside and out. And I knew how to work in nonprofit advisory, how to build and scale a nonprofit.”
Since last summer, the team has worked tirelessly to fill out paperwork and get registered for fundraising. “We have a lot of inbound demand from schools and programs after our launch event, and now we don’t have to say no anymore, because we can afford it,” he says. Manoj is “extremely grateful and extremely proud” of the work they’ve accomplished thus far. Cosmic Writers has reached up to 400 students already, and will have another 300 this summer. He says that he can see himself in a lot of the students, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of what he does.
In true finance bro fashion, Manoj describes Rowana as the CEO and himself as the CFO of Cosmic Writers. He explains his role as such: “We have all of this incredible programming that we want to get out there to as many children as possible. But if we don't do it in a way that's both financially sustainable and forward–facing, we'll run out of resources and our scope will be limited.” His main jobs are “fundraising, development, and building new connections to make sure that [Cosmic Writers has] a pipeline for incoming funds and revenue,” and then “managing resources and community partnerships to make sure expenses are taken care of and that [they] can grow sustainably as a business.”
Manoj and Rowana were named recipients of the 2022 President’s Engagement Prize, a huge accomplishment that Manoj describes as a “pipe dream.” The pair knew that the grant would “turbocharge what [they] could do in terms of expanding beyond Philadelphia,” and with the help of their mentor Al Filreis—Kelly Family Professor of English, faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, and director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing—they now have the resources to bring Cosmic Writers to schools across the country.
Manoj calls the award “the biggest and most tangible sense of validation,” and is incredibly proud of the whole Cosmic Writers team. “They've worked so hard on a volunteer basis … I couldn’t do any of this without them.” Aside from himself and Rowana, their four–person team includes Director of Operations Devorah Bass (C ‘23) and Director of Programs Rebekah Donnell (C ‘24). They’ll soon be opening signups for virtual camps and releasing instructor applications.
The stars are aligning for Cosmic Writers. Manoj will be staying in Philly to work on the project for at least the next year, but he hopes to stay involved long after. “This is by no means like a one–year rental,” he says. “[Rowana and I] have both decided and know that no matter what, even if we do have to take up full–time employment somewhere else, we will stay on the leadership team of Cosmic Writers and continue working on it for as long as time and energy and money will permit. Universe willing, I’ll get to do it full time for as long as possible.”
Reflecting on graduation, Manoj says, “I’m a sucker for nostalgia, so I know it's gonna hit me very, very, very hard.” But then he digs a little deeper: “It's funny to look back on myself as a freshman, because I've changed in really dramatic ways. But also, the thing I'm working on now and who I am now is more in line with what I was expecting when I was freshman than if you’d have asked me three months ago. I'm really happy with where I am. I've made some of the best friends I'll ever have and learned so much about the world.”
Manoj has taken full advantage of every experience, class, and resource that both Penn and Philly have to offer, and he encourages us to do the same. “I didn’t think any of this was possible in the beginning,” he says. “It’s easy to see the parts of the present that you don’t like, but now I can see that we’ve been extraordinarily lucky to be where we are.”